Thursday, December 13, 2012

Siddhartha, Tantricism, Environmentalism, Dao

Herman Hesse
I just got finished reading Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha.  For those of you who haven't read it, Siddhartha follows the life of a Brahmin (or religious caste member) who lives at the time of the historic Buddha.  Siddhartha studies with his father to learn the religious lore of the Hindus, then sets out to join a band of ascetics (or Sadhu) to seek wisdom.  Eventually he gives this up and meets with the Buddha.  Instead of taking vows and becoming a monk, however, he decides to cast his study away and learn about "the world".  He becomes enamored with a courtesan, a wealthy businessman and finds himself becoming more and more enmeshed in lust, greed, etc.  Eventually, he becomes disgusted with this life and walks away to live "the simple life" as a ferryman.  He gains real peace here, but eventually his old love, the courtesan, passes by with their son (whom he never knew about.)  She dies from a snake bite, leaving the son with her father.  He tries to be a good father, but they have very different ideas and the son runs away.  Eventually Siddhartha realizes that the son had to leave him just as he left his father years ago.  Realization ensues.
A Sadhu

Stated in bald terms, the plot doesn't seem any more insightful than any other.  And indeed, one of the points that Hesse makes is that all paths can be banal or the road to realization---it depends on the individual.  For Siddhartha, who was always a brilliant "outsider", it was easy to study philosophy, do austerities, and meditate.  What was difficult was to understand ordinary people:  their desires, loves and frustrations.  Indeed, Hesse always describes the young Siddhartha as having a "mocking edge" in his voice.  And the older one describes ordinary folks as "the childish ones".  It is only after he fully enmeshes himself into sex, greed and love that he begins to understand these others and stops seeing them as "childish" but instead as part of the whole of humanity.

When I read this book it occurred to me that what Hesse was really writing was not, as it is often understood, either Buddhism or Hinduism, but rather Tantra.  This is a medieval outgrowth of both Buddhism and Hinduism that suggests that it is important to embrace and understand the world around us instead of rejecting it.  I suppose the best example of this Tantric attitude that I can think of comes from the Daoist popular novel Seven Taoist Masters.  One figure decides that he is too consumed by lustful thoughts, so he creates a bunch of "fairy gold" out of pebbles and goes to live in a brothel.  After doing so for a few years any obsessive interest he may have had in sex has been burnt out of him.

Another aspect of Tantra is the idea of the human Guru.  The idea, expressed very well by Hesse, is that the teaching is pretty much irrelevant compared to how it is applied to day to day life.  And you can only get a feel for how to live the life if you have experience with someone who does a good job.  So Siddhartha meets the Buddha and is far more impressed by how the Buddha walks and interacts with people than with the specific doctrine he is teaching.  Later on, he lives with an old "working class" ferry man who becomes his exemplar of how to live a realized life.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, "religion poisons everything---even enlightenment".    And Tantric religion has often resulted in Guru slavery and sexual exploitation.  That is, gurus stopped being people you choose to emulate because you can see they are superior human beings and instead became tyrants who order you to do whatever crazy thing comes into their minds.  For example, "learning from the senses" becomes "sleep with me because it'll make you enlightened".  The people who publish  Down the Crooked path do a very good job of explaining the excesses of tantra.

What got me thinking about writing a blog about Siddhartha is something else, though.  My wife and I are united in our environmentalism.  We are also people who follow a non-religious Daoist path, although she is much more emotionally repulsed by religion than I am.  I find it interesting to study and believe that there are useful things to learn from that study.  She just finds it a disgusting mess of corruption and filth.

So be it, it's eerie how much we have in common otherwise.

But I have been thinking about Siddhartha and the "childish ones".  I often find myself looking at the people around me, the ones who blithely continue living as if things like climate change do not exist and feel no personal responsibility for it.  I've always found this totally and utterly mystifying.  My wife and I both go through periods of profound concern, anger and even despair over the attitudes of the people we meet.  It's as if they simply don't care.

I recognized myself in Hesse's book in Siddhartha when he looked on the merchants, working people and courtesans as "the childish ones".  The book has got me thinking.  Did Hesse understand something about the human heart that I have missed?  Am I missing out on a critical insight because I have never really felt what it means to be a direct participant in life instead of an observer?  Maybe.  Certainly, being married has really changed some of my attitudes towards life.

And what is that insight that Siddhartha came to?  It was the basic Hindu/Buddhist/Daoist idea that we make a mistake when we see a person as an individual.  This applies both to the idea that there is an atomistic soul that exists from birth to death-----Siddhartha at 5 is not the same man he is at 50.  (Buddhists call this idea anatta.)  Moreover, humanity, biota, the entire universe, are all parts of a big process. The metaphor that is used in the novel is a big river.  Stand on a bank and the river never moves, but the water flows by and disappears.  He's talking about what scientists would call a "homeostatic process".  Our bodies exist through this----old cells die and disappear, new ones come, but I the body still exists.  The flame on a candle is also a homeostatic process----the wax melts, burns off, but the flame continues.
Water Cycle

Human society is a homeostatic process.  The environment is filled with homeostatic processes:  the carbon cycle, the water cycle, etc.  The President retires, another one is elected to office, and so on. A part of wisdom comes from understanding the big picture and accepting that all of us are eventually replaced.  In Hesse's book, this is the wisdom of the Buddha.

Carbon Cycle
I often hear others talk about about this sort of thing by sprinkling in the phrase "I don't give a damn".  I don't give a damn if I die.  I don't give a damn about the future.  I don't give a damn about---.  I always feel really sad and hurt when I hear this.  Now I think I know why.  That phrase "I don't give a damn" means two things to me.  First, I think it is usually not true.  People do give a great deal about the situation but it hurts them so much to admit it that they are in denial about it.  Secondly, it can also mean that they are so angry with people's behaviour (i.e. the "childish ones" of Hesse's novel) that they cannot feel any emotional connection with them.

I think Hesse understood something important.  His character Siddhartha grew to identify with the "childish ones" through experiencing their lives.  He also learned to love them through his son.  At that point, he most certainly did give a damn, for the first time in his life.  But it hurt terribly to do so.  But by accepting the hurt and learning to get through it, he was able to see the wisdom of the River/Dao.  He could begin to love people and still see them as parts of a greater, homeostatic process.  You can see the river and still love the individual drops of water.  And if you allow yourself to do both, I would argue that life becomes bearable again.

I hope that people who do see how badly we are screwing up the environment can learn to love all the people who seem totally oblivious to the harm that they are doing.  And I hope that those people can come to see that their concern, and the actions they do, are part of the Dao----just like the actions of the people who are creating the problem in the first place.  We are all drops of water in the river of life.  The future may or may not come out the way we want, but that is the Dao's concern, not ours.  And this is not something to be sad, angry or happy about.  It is just the background of our lives.  


Amy Putkonen said...

I am so glad that I stumbled upon your blog. (I found you on AllTop.) I love this post. I haven't read Siddhartha, but a roommate of mine many years ago used to teach high school in North Carolina, which is a very fundamental Christian area. She taught Siddhartha in her classroom and I was always so proud of her for doing that, but have never actually read it. Now I may have to add it to my GoodReads!

You should come and check out my blog. I would love to know what you think of some of my work as well. I think we think alike.

Anonymous said...

You have piqued my interest. I have just bought the book.

Anonymous said...

I read the book. It was intersting enough, but was more an outline of a story than a story. It covers a lot in very general terms.